Michael Formanek’s approach to jazz and the double bass has changed and evolved over the decades. The ‘70s saw Formanek on the road with Tony Williams and Joe Henderson, and the ‘80s featured engagements with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Fred Hersch and Freddie Hubbard. By the ‘90s, Formanek had become a central figure in New York’s creative jazz scene. Today, Formanek’s many projects include Thumbscrew, a co-lead Brooklyn trio with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, as well as a steady quartet with Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums, whose 2010 and 2012 albums earned five-star reviews in DownBeat.
Elusion Quartet, one of Formanek’s more recent projects, features the dynamic personnel of saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ches Smith. The Elusion Quartet will celebrate the release of their album Time Like This at their upcoming Jazz Gallery show. Published by Swiss label Intakt Records and recorded at Oktaven Audio by Ryan Streber, the album was a vehicle for exploring “a more direct connection to emotions” according to Formanek. We spoke with Formanek about how he and the band put this new music together.
The Jazz Gallery: I know you recorded the album in February, but October somehow feels like the perfect time to listen to it. It’s mesmerizing, ever-changing, expressive, it reflects the season somehow. What are your feelings, listening back now?
Michael Formanek: Well, those are all qualities that I feel all the time [laughs]. That music was recorded in the midst of a series of big personal life changes. We were in the process of leaving Baltimore where we’d lived for many years, moving north. I was deciding whether to leave my teaching position where I’d been for a long time, moving back into the playing and composing part of my life, which I was always doing, but was having to work it out with my teaching schedule. Ultimately, the timing of everything felt right. So these feelings are less seasonal and more about general life change, and I think the album reflects that, along with things happening in the world every day.
TJG: More on the ideas behind the album soon, but in listening, it sounds like there is a good bit of formal logic in terms of pacing and structure in improvised sections. What did the preparation look like for the project, in terms of talking through material with the group?
MF: The album features such a strong group of improvisers and composers, and at this point, it’s almost a given that the majority of the people I play with are going to recognize how musical elements in motion can move from one place to another. Rarely, I might say something, “Maybe this would be better if we moved between these things a little differently,” or “This doesn’t have to be quite so intense here,” just general notes while rehearsing. For me, the challenge in composing for improvisers is in the balance of providing the right amount of material, in the sense of composition and structure, without impeding the flow of what can simply happen. For me, in the case of Time Like This, I was trying to write a bit less than I usually do, to give more room for things to happen.
TJG: On one of the tracks, “Culture of None,” I love the duo bass and drum introduction, and the ensuing melodic lines that emerge so naturally. I was almost surprised when I heard you playing something close to a walking bassline, and Kris Davis playing a linear piano solo, something I don’t often hear. Do you remember some of your intentions going into the track?
MF: That track was a tricky one, because it basically started with that hand drum part. There are these rhythms and mixed meters, with nothing in even time, so for me, it was about looking for patterns and phrases. I started to assign pitches, which is where the bassline or bass melody came from. Once that evolved, I wrote the secondary part, the more melodic part. Only at a certain point later on did it become clear that there was an even 3/8 thing that moves through the whole form. That was a result, a realization, rather than a starting point. The organic part of that piece was that I was indulging these odd groupings of odd rhythms, conceiving of it as a drum part, but thinking more abstractly, it culminated in this even, swinging three feel. That evolved more during the improvisations. I didn’t say “We have to get to this feel,” and in fact, we did a few takes of this tune, where different things happened organically. We started with one idea, improvised, and naturally moved to another. I’m always happy when certain things evolve that didn’t necessarily unfold from their logical starting point.
TJG: What were the sparks that made you choose this take for the album?
MF: Kris played this amazing improvisation over the weird bassline, catching bits and pieces, different accents and all that, but then when Tony comes in, it starts this long steady build toward the end, and it just felt like, “Yes, that’s what makes the most sense to me.” In the beginning it had an almost unsure feeling, with the hand drum and all of that, with a different character, and when Ches goes to the ride cymbal, it started that fast walking-ish pulse thing, which ramped to the end of the piece. I liked that shape.
TJG: This seems like a good moment to ask about your titles, which seem very ‘of this cultural moment.’ With the album titled Time Like This, and songs like “That Was Then,” “The New Normal,” “A Fine Mess,” “Culture of None.” You discussed a time of change in your life: Where were you mentally when you released the album, and how do you see the album as reflecting our times?
MF: I spoke about this in depth when putting together the liner notes with Hank Shteamer. Everything was titled before we recorded it, which isn’t always the case, but was for this record. My overarching theme for the album was about time, but not necessarily just the time we live in. It’s about a particular time in my life, but also how we deal with time in music, time related to rhythm, to chronology. I knew I wanted the title to reflect this idea, and I kept thinking of the phrase “times like these.” Cliches like the idea of “time like this” being a singular moment unlike any other moment my life or in history… maybe it’s overdramatic, but that’s how I view it. The title reflects that somehow, Time Like This. It relates to the music on this recording too, how much of the music isn’t in overt time, and the time tends to be a little more subtle. Most things are in some sort of tempo, but it’s a fluid, elastic time feel.
In terms of the titles for the songs… Every once in a while, I’ll just title something in a super obvious way, like the opening track, “Down 8 Up 5.” There’s a piano ostinato that goes down eight pitches and ascends five pitches [laughs]. With “Culture of None,” I was thinking about that piece where I wanted the hand drums and the bass together in some kind of folkloric reference, but not tied to a particular place or culture. “This May Get Ugly” has to do with what’s happening now in our ultra-polarized culture, politics, everything else. “The Soul Goodbye” is a fragment of the phrase “you can kiss the soul goodbye,” the idea that when people are willing to do anything at any cost, no matter the human or global consequences… Well, it’s a little dark, but you get the idea. In terms of “That Was Then,” I like these brief sentence fragments that over-simplify and still say something. “That was then” is a quick dismissal of history. Though I’m very interested in history, in connecting to it, sometimes detachment is important. And “The New Normal,” I guess that one is obvious.
TJG: To follow up on “That Was Then,” the tune has this wonderfully floating, cruising quality, with an undercurrent of something sinister. Where do you want to bring us, as listeners?
MF: To some sort of parallel reality. People like to talk about “the way things used to be, they were so great.” You know, that view of the world having been better “back in the day.” For me, it was like, “Okay, this has some of the elements of that,” but it’s not always all great, “back in the day” can be kind of weird, dark, twisted place. But we often want to remember things in a way the reflects a more romanticized vision.
TJG: The same sort of question for “The New Normal”—The opening features this great duo with Tony Malaby, and then Kris and Ches come in with nearly-unison piano and vibes flourishes. It builds into something militaristic by the end – how would you describe your choices there?
MF: In the case of that tune, the decisions were mostly musical. I composed the vibes and piano parts first as a complete section. At some point, I became interested in having vibes and piano by themselves as a background for improvisation, and I wanted to see where they would take it and how it would shape things. Tony and I can play duo all day, that’s fun, but I’m always interested in how improvisation can give the written music a reason to exist. Those things were on my mind when we recorded. It wasn’t deliberately “militaristic”—I was reaching for more of a warped minimalism, based on certain intervals and an open string on the bass. The idea evolved with the piece.
Alongside the music itself, the piece started to feel related to ideas of revisionist history, things we’re accepting that are told to us, things that are frankly bonkers insane. People on some level are so worn down that they’re just accepting it. I’ll bring that into my music as well: I’ll do something that’s obviously odd or weird, and I’ll try to put it out there as if it’s an everyday occurrence, which is obviously is not the case [laughs]. That’s how the musical and background ideas tie together.
TJG: So how did you decide to put the album out with Intakt Records?
MF: My relationship with them is new. We started talking about a year ago, and I had a really nice initial interaction with the principals of the company. They were excited about doing a recording, and they liked the idea of what I wanted to do. They were supportive. This is my first time working with them, and I think it’s been great. It came out yesterday, so we’ll see what happens, what kind of exposure it gets. They seem to do a lot of work in terms of getting it out there. So far, it’s been great working with them.
TJG: Many of my favorite albums have been recorded at Oktaven Audio by Ryan Streber. How did you decide to go in that direction?
MF: That was a bit of a leap of faith. I’d never worked there previously, but I’d heard my friend Tim Berne had just done something with Matt Mitchell there, along with a couple of other people, and they told me about it. I started to look at recordings I had, including by Tyshawn Sorey and some other people, some contemporary and non-improvising or crossover musicians and groups that had recorded there. I liked the sound of the piano, and I thought it was really well recorded, so I contacted them and had an email exchange with Ryan Streber, the co-owner and engineer, and had a great feeling about it. I hadn’t stepped foot in there before the recording, which is rare for me, but sometimes you just take a chance, and I was very happy with the result.
The Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Sunday, October 28, 2018. The group features Mr. Formanek on bass, Tony Malaby on saxophones, Kris Davis on piano, and Ches Smith on drums & percussion. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($2o for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.